‘Wizard of Oz,’ still magical after 70 years

Aug. 28, 2009 | 5:52 p.m.

This is a longer version of my story that will run Saturday on the cover of the Los Angeles Times’ Calendar section. It was great fun talking to all of these creative minds. 

Emerald City

It was 70 years ago this week that “The Wizard of Oz” arrived in theaters and even in this CGI-jaded era those old red ruby slippers still sparkle brightly.

The anniversary has been celebrated over the past year with numerous events, including a national tour by a seven-story Oz-themed hot-air balloon. The festivities will wrap up with a Sept. 23 one-night theatrical re-release of a newly restored version of the film in 450 theaters and the release next month of an “ultimate collector’s edition” package on Blu-ray and DVD with that remastered version and 16 hours of bonus material.

That may sound like a lot of attention for an artifact from the FDR administration, but there’s a timeless quality to the cinematic adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel that still transports new generations over the rainbow. The movie remains an essential reference point — this December in James Cameron’s much-ballyhooed sci-fi epic “Avatar,” for instance, when the main character arrives on a dazzling jungle planet, moviegoers will hear a familiar line: “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” Cameron chuckled when asked about the line. “Yeah, it’s my favorite movie; I had to get it in there somewhere,” he said. Cameron is not alone in his ongoing romance with “Oz.” To mark the anniversary, The Times interviewed creators in film, television, music and books who have never wearied of the cinematic trip down the yellow brick road.

Oz travelers

Guillermo del Toro, filmmaker, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy,”  “The Hobbit” (2011)

“I fixated on the scary aspects of the tale — the flying monkeys, the tornado (still a great effects example today), the Wicked Witch of the West, the overwhelming presence of the Wizard and — in my childhood imagination — the nagging biological horror that the lack of heart or brains indicated. The super-saturated colors are forever singed in my memory. This is the first movie where I became aware of scale . . . the sense that you are watching a ‘Big Picture,’ a Hollywood super-production. I was completely engaged by the tale. Dorothy losing it all and having to regain it back on her own — it was a very empowering childhood tale.”

Ray Harryhausen, visual effects pioneer, “Clash of the Titans,” “Jason and the Argonauts,” Mighty Joe Young.”

“Although ‘King Kong’ remains my favorite fantasy/adventure film of all time, primarily because of the influence it had on my childhood and career, I can certainly say that ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a very close second. I was extremely impressed with the amazing work done on the film by the legendary A. Arnold ’Buddy’ Gillespie, MGM’s top visual effects artist, as well as the wonderful production design by the industry’s best art directors. That the film has endured and still impresses after 70 years is no surprise to me. I expect it to continue to gain new admirers during the next 70 years.”

Oz slippers ouch

Stephen Schwartz, composer, the musical “Wicked” and the films “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

“For me, not surprisingly, the most memorable thing about the movie is the Harold Arlen music, starting with that great overture that movies don’t have anymore, and the witty E.Y. Harburg lyrics with all their clever wordplay, which influenced so many lyricists — including me.”

Norman Lear, producer, “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons”

“You mention ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and there’s a glow. I can’t tell you the afternoon or the evening when I saw it for the first time, but I still feel that glow. Judy Garland was incandescent. And there was a magic to all of it that came together. Why would Jack Haley be so indelible in my mind as the Tin Man? Why would Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion be remembered by everyone? The indelibility of those characters. It’s a great, emotional piece of work. The transition from black and white to color in the film — so powerful.”

Jon Favreau, filmmaker, “Iron Man,” “Elf,” “Zathura”

“The part I gravitate to is hero’s journey, the film as a piece of archetype. It’s the coming-of-age journey in the Joseph Campbell mythic structure. So much of the movie seems so random, with the flying monkeys and the Munchkins, but if you chip all that away it’s the hero’s journey, in this case about a girl becoming a woman and leaving behind the safety and comfort of home. You don’t think about that, which is why it’s so good. . . . The movie’s influence is everywhere. Years ago when I was making ‘Swingers,’ a relatively small, uneventful film, I actually had a ‘Oz’ reference in it because it was about this outsider’s journey into this strange place, the Hollywood nightlife instead of ‘Oz.’ ”

Wayne Coyne, lead singer, the Flaming Lips.

“Like all experiences you have when you’re a child, they are magnified and viewed as either magical or terrifying . . . and obviously ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ is both with its colossal tornado (remember, we live in Oklahoma where tornadoes happen all the time) . . . and its flying monkeys being terrifying . . . and the Emerald City . . . and that great, scary forest being magical . . . and the part toward the end where Dorothy cries. It still is devastating.”

Joe Dante, filmmaker, “Gremlins,” “Innerspace,” “Twilight Zone: The Movie”

“Like the multi-director ‘Gone With the Wind‘ (not as a good a movie), ‘Wizard of Oz’ [with the credited Victor Fleming and three uncredited directors, including King Vidor] isn’t exactly an auteurist triumph. But it is the high-water mark of studio filmmaking. I saw it first at a kiddie matinee in 1954, before it became a network TV holiday staple, and thought it was as memorable as a Disney animated film — high praise from my 8-year-old self in those days. Remember, this was considered a commercial disappointment in 1939! Only in ensuing years was it embraced as a classic by my own and later generations, illustrating the maxim that the true worth of a movie is very hard to assess at the time it’s first released.”

Oz, in the presence

Michael Moorcock, author, “Elric of Melnibone,” “Behold the Man,” “The Metatemporal Detective”

“I’ve loved the movie since I first saw it as a tot. The transition from black and white into color made a huge impression. We didn’t have the familiar U.S. editions of the Oz books in the U.K., and when I at last saw a book version, I was deeply disappointed. The illustrations looked ‘wrong’ (no Judy Garland). I did enjoy the story I heard later that there was thought to be a communist subtext to the Harold Arlen songs. I’m not sure if Joe McCarthy came up with that one or not, but the idea of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ as a commie vehicle seems somehow to encapsulate the complete madness of the Hollywood witch hunts and amplifies my relish for the film. I’m sure the story’s apocryphal, but a good story is a good story, true or false — as I’m sure the Wizard himself would have agreed.”

Zack Snyder, filmmaker, “300,” “Watchmen” and “Dawn of the Dead” (2004)

“I find it most interesting that even after 70 years ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is still an incredibly modern film in many ways. Especially in the sense that it speaks a very contemporary sci-fi/fantasy language. The skill with which the film guides the audience through the layers of an alternate reality and then delivers one of the best mind-bending endings ever is simply timeless. Not to mention, the film has flying monkeys and you can’t beat that.”

– Geoff Boucher

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LAT BOOK REVIEW: “The Real Wizard of Oz” on Baum’s life

A visit to Oz Museum in Kansas

Photo credits: Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

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Comments


16 Responses to ‘Wizard of Oz,’ still magical after 70 years

  1. Ernie Juarez says:

    Wow! 70 years and it seems like everytime it's on my family still watches this movie! One of the classics!

  2. SoCalGal says:

    Recently saw this on the big screen. What a treat!

  3. carlos rossi says:

    Tarina Tarantino is holding an event tomorrow 8/29 to launch her Wizard of Oz jewelry line a her Melrose Store!!

  4. BeautyQueen says:

    The Wizard of Oz – a life defining film. Would I become forever a dreamer, always chasing after some never-to-be-realized idea of a better circumstance? Or, would I realize that life is what we make of it (not where we make it, whether that be in far off, magical places or in ones "own back yard")?
    It was the film that taught me about true friendship, the value of perseverence even in the face of almost certain defeat, the need for courage, common sense, heart, loyalty and honor in building good character, and the capacity for one to create joyfulness under the most dire of circumstances (it's a musical, after all – where else do you get singing when you're happy AND when you're sad, or wistful, or frightened, or triumphant, or when you're simply waking up in the morning or following a brick road?).
    It bound my oft-scattered family, for at least a couple of hours, in front of a small, flickering television screen, surrounded by darkness, popcorn, and a warm, mellow glow from the fireplace, sharing an experience we would call upon again and again throughout our lives, and provided cherished references to past times, happy times, spent together on common, hallowed ground – a shared memory we respect and appreciate ever more with the passage of time. It was the backdrop for what was perhaps our only "Norman Rockwell" moment.
    Because it speaks to the most basic of human conditions in most creative ways (even by today's standards), I believe it will be both relevant and revered for generations to come.
    Dorothy forever!

  5. rayma says:

    Eight out of eight interviewees male? Duuuude.

  6. Albert Jakobsen says:

    It was 1940 in Copenhagen, Denmark, and the family had just celebrated my coming-of-age party on Sunday, March 31. That gave me a day off from school the following Monday and I took the metro into the city and went to the movies early in the afternoon. The movie was a brand new one from America, the title was "The Wizard of Oz". There were only a few people in the theater and I sat rather alone and watched the spectacular show. One week later German troops marched in and occupied the country for the next five years. No more American movies. But I will remember the day and the film for the rest of my life. I still look at it once in a while.

  7. Anthony Cervantes says:

    One of the best things about The Wizard of Oz is its message of a young girl's ability to take control of her own life and destiny. This puts it in stark contrast to the misogynistic garbage that Disney has been churning out for decades–stories in which some young maiden has a short window of opportunity during which to shop her virginity around in order to attract a prince or, failing to find any takers, has to suffer the rest of her life as a frustrated old hag often driven to kill any women younger and more attractive than herself. In the Wizard of Oz it is the women who possess all the power–whether they choose to use it for good or for evil is their own decision–and the one male authority figure is revealed literally to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
    Therefore, considering the film is one of the most pro-feminist of all time, it seems to me ironic that, of all the individuals asked to comment on it for your article, you chose to not include a single woman amongst them.

  8. gruber says:

    Imagination is the key to life. Oz is imagination–a place you may run to and return from at will. Oz is Neverland is all the wacky stuff you hear kids say when they are off creating their own world out of the living room couch. It must have been a privilege for those on set to be a part of this visit to Oz–a place beyond the reach of most everyone over the age of 10.
    imagination is: http://thehappeningstory.blogspot.com/

  9. Scott says:

    Still the greatest musical fantasy Hollywood has ever made! The fact that all one has to do is quote any line from the film and it's instantly recognized speaks volumes about the film's lasting legacy.
    Judy Garland's understated, glowing performance is easy to overlook amid the rest of the wonderful performances, but it's her performance that gives the film its emotional center. But everyone is fantastic – and perfectly cast. For example, today filmmakers would put "hot" young starlet in the glamorous role of Glinda, The Good Witch of the North – rather than the wonderful 50-something Billie Burke who proves that true beauty and glamor and class are ageless.
    The filmmakers weren't afraid to have a witch and flying monkeys who were truly terrifying, especially to a young child. That gives even more emotional impact to Dorothy's (and her companion's) journey.
    The music, the sets, the costumes, the amazing make-up and special effects. Everything came together, every ONE came together to create something timeless that, as this article wonderfully points out, will never go out of style.
    Oh – and that color! Can't wait for this new 8k transfer on DVD and Blu-ray!!
    Anyone who doesn't like this film should be sent to bed "without supper"!

  10. Thank you LA TIMES for posting this most amazing article on my favorite movie of all time. I loved reading the film-maker interviews of how this classic film impacted their own creative path. Bravo !!!

  11. RMRN says:

    The Wizard of Oz is one of my top 2 all-time favorite films and it was originally released before my parents were born! Testament to its timeless quality.

  12. GRACE L. SANDOVAL says:

    DEAR SIR:
    PLEASE LET ME KNOW OF ALL INFORMATION ON THE WIZARD OF OZ.
    GRACE L. SANDOVAL

  13. Vito Positano says:

    Anthony and Albert,
    It's very likely that a large percentage of the "guys" interviewed have a thriving, strong inner female that you could and should resonate with instead of whining about the male names they use in public.

  14. Dan Holland says:

    This was a time when movie making was a real treasure. This is yet another timeless work that will remember for generations to come. This was a time where we were amazed and entertained with out sex, violence or language full of rubbish. I’ll take this era of film making anytime.

  15. frank says:

    Preview the latest in Tarina Tarantino Wizard of Oz Jewelry at <a href="http://www.bellabacci.com” target=”_blank”>www.bellabacci.com.
    Free Shipping!

  16. erin w says:

    this movie has been in my family for years and years. since i can imagine. i was 2 years old maybe 3 sitting there watching this movie over and over again. i eventually broke the movie from watchin it so much. and now my 3 year old daughter kyla absolutely LOVES this movie. watches it over and over. walks around singin it. this movie is going to live on forever.

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